Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Ghost Doctors in Love: Just Like Heaven (2005)

What is it about women and romantic comedies? Filled with flowers, Cole Porter songs, weddings, soft focus, backlighting, hunky but awkwardly sensitive guys, dreamy cities, and unrealistically lonely ingénue movie stars, romantic comedies get cranked out of Hollywood with grim predictability like those massive stacks of Harlequin romances one sees in used bookstores. As the storylines harden like peanut brittle, one can always expect the couple to argue at first. Then they gradually fall for each other before a brief separation towards the end where they poignantly go to haunt the places where they once dated. Then, through some plot twist, they reunite with a kiss, all of the cute and funny side characters laugh and cheer, and all the women walk out of the theater hormonally satisfied, brushing tears from their eyes.

Reese Witherspoon’s new vehicle Just Like Heaven fits the cookie cutter conventions of this genre exactly, but the film benefits from a witty script and the shaping hand of Mean Girls director Mark Waters. Even though Reese’s perky face reminds me of Tweetie Bird, Witherspoon is a fiercely professional actress who knows how to play characters with a hard edge. In Sweet Home Alabama, she was the transplanted New Yorker returning to an idealized southern town. In Election, she was frightening as an ambitious high school politico, and in this film she brings some of that intensity to her role as Elizabeth Masterson, a medical doctor too busy to realize that she has no life. When she abruptly gets put into a coma in a car accident, her spirit has trouble accepting her status between the living and the dead, so she haunts the new tenant played by Mark Ruffalo in her dreamy San Francisco roof apartment. In an anal-retentive way, she wants the new tenant out of her space.

In turn, Ruffalo’s character David, who, according to a female friend, looks great stepping out of the shower, has cocooned himself after losing his wife. Putting metaphysical considerations aside, he finds the “blonde control freak” irritating. After failing to get rid of her through spiritualism and a ghostbuster team, David develops the kind of chaste friendship with Elizabeth that one might expect between a human and a ghost, with her saying things like “When I’m not with you, it’s like I don’t exist.” Since her spirit suffers from amnesia, they decide to investigate who she was when she was more fully alive.

Do they fall in love? Does Ruffalo shed a tear or two as he recounts his wife’s cerebral hemorrhage with the lights of the San Francisco night skyline winking around him? Does Witherspoon’s ghost ironically learn how to live? For the sake of comic relief, Jon Heder shows up to play a book-dealing slacker mystic reminiscent of Shaggy in Scooby Doo blended with his character in Napoleon Dynamite. Also, Ruffalo’s character has to fend off the advances of a brazen, thong-wearing next door neighbor Katrina (Ivana Milicevic) as Elizabeth’s ghost looks on with disdain, saying things like “I just threw up in my mouth.” One part Vertigo and another part Ghost, the film may sound cheesy, but it is one of the better romantic comedies of its ilk. From its otherworldly perspective, Just Like Heaven suggests that the most efficient workaholics need to lose control and lighten up. Also, from the woman’s point of view, it may be worth almost dying to find Mark Ruffalo in your rooftop apartment with a view of San Francisco Bay.

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